I’m at Fault

In some languages, dictionaries are nice, concise books which help you find the word you’re looking for. Of course, there are sometimes words which have more than one meaning, but these are often accompanied with little notes saying ‘this one’s a verb! don’t be caught out!’.

In Chinese, not so much.

All words are equal in the realm of the dictionary. But step outside that world where you can tell yourself that you know lots of words, and you’re done for. Words shown up totally innocently in a dictionary can be jarring, impossibly formal, have whatever connotation you would like or be simply never used outside of an unknown suburb in Nanjing.

Take a simple enough sentence like ‘I’m ill’, and any translator or dictionary will be happy to give you the simple 我病了, translating almost directly (give or take some funny grammar) to the English equivalent. However, ‘病’ (ill) also can mean ‘fault’ or ‘weakness’, so that sentence is usually skirted around with the awkward sounding ‘我不舒服’ – I am not comfortable.


(Yep, that’s a Chinese dictionary. Fortunately, the Internet exists.)

The endless-seeming nature of synonyms and natural sounding phrases may be the reason that Chinese is viewed as one of the hardest languages to learn – not due to any grammar rules which can be learned. Having developed so far away from interconnected European languages, there can sometimes be no simple translation from Chinese to English, just the conveyal of the same ideas. I’ve found that you need to try to find a Chinese language-mindset to write in Chinese, rather than just thinking in English and trying to translate, which often results in strange translations with odd vocabulary, even after the dictionary has done its worse.

What do you think? Does writing in Chinese need a different ‘mindset’ than writing in English? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Things I learned this week:

  • I’m ill, but I still need to skirt round some cultural faux pas to tell you
  • Chinese dictionaries. Masters of deception.
  • Think Chinese. You don’t speak English, remember?

If you enjoyed this post, check out the related Electric Shadows (May) and The World’s Easiest Language? (November). This week’s archive pick is One, Two, Three, What?!, the fourth post on this blog from all the way back in October. Enjoy!

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4 thoughts on “I’m at Fault

  1. Meg says:

    I don’t learn mandarin but I have learnt other languages at school (like English, for example), and I think it’s not only writing in Chinese that needs a Chinese mindset, but any other language needs its own.
    Only on rare occasions you can translate the things you want to say directly and some English words don’t exist in German and vice versa (although these two languages are quite similar) which leads to a description of the word you want to say rather than a translation. Two words that come to my mind here: Antidisestablishmentarianism and Schadenfreude.
    I really like to discover the mindset of a foreign language, I guess that is one of the great pleasures of learning languages.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Liu Min says:

    Good post! Agreed. Writing in Chinese certainly needs a Chinese mindset, and it’s likewise in English. Good translation is hard to materialize, and based on what I observe, only the ones who excel in both languages can do it well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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